Indonesia's "honesty cafes"

JAKARTA — Indonesia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International ranks it 126 out of 180 nations — worse than Nigeria, but better than Myanmar. And so a handful of progressive leaders are trying anything they can to stem the overwhelming problem. In fact, the strategies to end graft are these days almost as imaginative as the graft itself.

In East Kalimantan, a province full of natural resources that has been a gold mine for corrupt government officials and businessmen, the local governor recently announced he would open almost 1,500 cafes without cashiers throughout the province. Patrons would be expected to take what they want and leave the appropriate amount of cash in return.

The so-called “honesty cafes” are an attempt to instill ethics into the youth who have been raised in an atmosphere where corruption is everywhere. Almost all Indonesians have paid bribes to government officials and police at some point in their lives and many of them pay bribes on a regular basis. Something as simple as an identification card requires a few extra dollars for the issuing official.

“There are many people with very little discipline,” said Zairin, a spokesperson for the East Kalimantan governor. “They throw garbage everywhere, smoke in public places and are prone to corruption. This program is aimed at the root of the problem, the culture.”

The hope is that patrons of the cafes will feel compelled to leave the correct amount of money, and if they don’t, they will face the condemnation of their peers. The cafes will first be introduced into schools throughout the province, and then offices and possibly even on the street.

“It is so important that Indonesia’s younger generation grow up with a better understanding of what is right and what is wrong so they are more disciplined and less likely to take part in corrupt activities," Zairin said. "This anti-corruption campaign targets the youth so that Indonesia can have a better future.”

The fight really began with the creation of the powerful Anti-Corruption Commission shortly after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president in 2004. Ever since, high-profile arrests are splashed across the front pages on a daily basis. Local reporters are stationed outside the commission’s offices almost 24 hours a day to catch parliamentarians, businessmen, judges, banking officials and governors being brought in for questioning — the sort of “perp walk” that can instantly end careers.

The revealed tales of respected lawmakers caught with satchels full of cash on their way to late night hotel room meetings are so common here they have become cliche.

Not satisfied with prosecutions alone, the commission has several times floated the idea of forcing graft suspects to wear special uniforms, or a scarlet letter, to single them out as corrupt. The idea, however, has not yet been approved for fear of making suspects seem guilty before a trial.

But the commission is desperate to find new ways of fighting graft. In the last five years it has had many successes, but has not yet netted any “big fish” and has failed to prosecute some important cases.

Worst yet, on May 4 the commission’s director, Antasari Azhar, was arrested in connection with the mob-style murder of a businessman and golf buddy, leading to his dismissal. The media here has widely assumed his guilt but the director has many obvious and powerful enemies and his attorneys are claiming he was framed. At least one major police official and a media mogul have also been brought in for questioning.

In short, the fight against graft here, made endemic by Suharto, the country’s kleptocrat ruler for almost 30 years, is an uphill one.

Even when it comes with a hit of coffee or a plate of nasi goreng.

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